Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Last Survivor of 1948 Baseball Tragedy Recalls Crash That Changed Everything

One of the worst tragedies in baseball history is something that Bernie Gerl thinks about on a regular basis. On July 24th, 1948, The Duluth (Minnesota) Dukes minor league baseball team was traveling from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to St. Cloud, Minnesota for a game. Sunny skies and perfect weather for a nearly three-hour bus trip.

For reasons still unknown, the team bus collided head on with a truck carrying dry ice. Both drivers were instantly killed—as were four ball players from the Duluth Dukes.

Bernie Gerl always enjoyed being one of the first people on the bus. He liked to “pick” his seat and get comfortable. On the fateful day of July 24th, 1948, Gerl was seated right behind the driver. Nobody can recall what happened, but Gerl was badly burned. If it hadn’t been for a nearby farmer and some fast-responding firemen, he would have died at the scene.

Gerl was unconscious for three days. “When I opened my eyes for the first time in three days, I saw my father,” he remembers. :It was difficult to speak and put together full sentences. I do remember telling my dad that I was in a slump and I gotta get out of here.” Gerl was a healthy 190 pounds before the accident. When he was discharged from the hospital 40 days later, he only weighed 120 pounds.

Gerl didn’t play for two years after the accident. The recovery time was intense, but Gerl fought through the pain and re-learned some of the basic motor skills needed to play ball. After baseball, Gerl worked for the Cola-Cola company for 39 years. His brother was a truck driver and got him the job with Coke. In five short years, he was running the Joliet, Illinois operation. He started with Coke in 1955 and was VP of Customer Relations by the time he retired. Gerl managed every operation in Northern Illinois and frequently travelled the world on behalf of Coke. “It was great to see the world and learn about different cultures,” says Gerl.

Today, Gerl is the last remaining survivor of the crash in 1948, and he’s still married to his childhood sweetheart, Bernadine. They’ve been married for 65 years. Some of the memories from the accident are well documented in Gerl’s many scrapbooks, which consist mainly of newspaper clippings and other personal mementos that were sent to Gerl while he was still in the hospital immediately following the accident. Many of Gerl’s grandchildren have seen the scrapbooks, but some are still too young to understand the severity of the crash. Bernie Gerl is 88 now, but that one day 66 years ago sticks with him. “July 24th is a day that I never forget.”

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